Column: ‘Tone-deaf’ T-shirts at Northwestern’s 1st open football practice further tarnish the program

Northwestern’s first open football practice Wednesday was all about Pat Fitzgerald, even as the former Wildcats coach was nowhere around.

It took place at Hutcheson Field, part of the $260 million practice facility on the lakefront that never would’ve been possible without Fitzgerald’s success in making the program relevant.

Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian was among the staffers who wore specially made shirts with Fitzgerald’s NU jersey No. 51 on them with the not-so-cryptic message: “Cats Against the World.”

Interim coach David Braun acknowledged he still speaks with Fitzgerald, as did the three Wildcats players who served as team spokesmen.

If Fitzgerald had any worries his football legacy would be forgotten after the hazing scandal that rocked the university, precipitated multiple lawsuits and led to his firing, he shouldn’t have been.

The message was crystal clear: Keep moving, folks. Nothing to see here.

It was business as usual as coaches and players prepared for the Sept. 3 opener at Rutgers, except with more media on hand because of the scandal. The rap song “Space Cadet” played over the speakers as players began drills, with the repetitive lyric “Feel like I’m livin’ on my own planet.”

A staffer yelled out instructions to linemen to “dominate the double team,” which somehow sounded different after allegations of naked players being held down and dry-humped by their teammates.

The Wildcats tried to put the scandal behind them without showing any disrespect to the former coach who ran the program when most of the alleged hazing occurred.

The talking points were expected from student-athletes smart enough not to say the wrong thing.

“We’re not here today to talk about any hazing allegations,” senior linebacker Bryce Gallagher said. “We’re here to talk about the upcoming season.”

A variation of that quote was repeated throughout the news conference, even when players were asked if hazing in general is bad. Maybe the word will soon be banned from the university, whose students once advocated for a nickname change from Wildcats to “The Purple Haze.”

The general theme was about “sticking together” during a “difficult time,” which could be the theme for any college football program coming off a losing season. But instead of looking forward, the oblivious Bajakian and other staff members made sure the practice was more about Fitzgerald than the upcoming season.

Braun said the T-shirt was a “free speech” issue and it wasn’t his call to tell anyone what to wear at practice.

“I’m not going to dive into (that),” he said. “It certainly isn’t my business to censor anyone’s free speech.”

Did Braun believe the message on the shirts was tone-deaf?

He repeated he was focused only on his staff and players, adding: “I have not put any of that energy into considering the potential of censoring anyone’s free speech.”

NU athletic director Derrick Gragg, who has yet to take questions from the media outside of interviews with ESPN and Big Ten Network, was seen at practice but apparently didn’t see the message on the T-shirts. In a statement later in the day, Gragg said he was “extremely disappointed” that staff members wore the shirts, calling them “inappropriate, offensive and tone-deaf.”

Gragg added that “hazing has no place” at the school and that neither he nor the university was aware the staff members “owned or would wear the shirt” at the practice.

Do the players agree with the “Northwestern against the world” mantra? Is everyone really against the Wildcats?

“Coach Braun, he’s been preaching we should stick together, especially during a time like this,” wide receiver Bryce Kirtz said. “So the shirts are really just a reminder to allow us to stick together.”

Safety Rod Heard II said the players have done “a great job of moving forward from the situation” and their conversations have been about the game, not the hazing incidents. Heard lauded the “high character” of the people running the program and said, “That’s the reason why we chose to come here — it’s a different standard when we come to Northwestern.”

That certainly was Northwestern’s image under Fitzgerald’s reign: perpetual Big Ten underdogs with high academic standards that had to battle to keep up on the field with the Ohio States and Michigans of the world.

But that all came crashing down last month when university President Michael Schill issued a wrist slap — a two-week unpaid suspension — to Fitzgerald after an external investigation revealed unspecified hazing incidents.

A whistleblower told the student newspaper of the sexualized hazing activities he experienced, and a number of former players soon came forward to corroborate or add to the allegations.

Gragg and Schill have avoided media requests for interviews. Fitzgerald also has yet to speak publicly since being fired, though he denied any knowledge of the hazing in a statement.

Braun said he has been “checking in” with Fitzgerald, whose son, Jack, remains with the program. Braun phrased his conversations with Fitzgerald as those between a coach and a parent, which he said was necessary because of the transfer portal.

Braun said he still cares about Fitzgerald’s “well-being very, very much” and revealed he stayed at Fitzgerald’s house for two months when he joined the staff as defensive coordinator in January.

“The relationship with Pat is much deeper than just someone that I worked for for six months,” Braun said. “But those conversations are personal and have been personal. Just checking in on a friend and making sure he’s OK.”

Gallagher said the players were “devastated, obviously” when Fitzgerald was fired.

“No one ever wants to lose your head coach or have that change,” he said. “We love Coach Fitz and are devastated he’s not here. But we have full belief in Coach Braun, and he’s been unbelievable and done a great job leading us.”

Asked if they also have remained in touch with Fitzgerald, the three players acknowledged they have, though only Gallagher responded, echoing his coach’s words.

“Yeah, those are personal conversations that are between us and him,” he said.

The players also supported Jack Fitzgerald, who is on the football roster and eligible to play but did not practice Wednesday. Kirtz referred to him as an “assistant” instead of a teammate.

“Hanging out with him, making sure he always has somebody around him,” Kirtz said. “He’s been taking it well. He hasn’t seemed to let it affect his attitude or the way he interacts with us.”

As for the upcoming season, Braun said Ben Bryant and Brendan Sullivan will duel for the starting quarterback job as the Wildcats hope to change the tide after a 1-11 campaign. Skip Holtz, who was hired as a special assistant, was not at practice, but Braun said they have been working closely on defensive plans. Braun called D.J. Vokolek, hired away from Southern Illinois last week as an assistant coach, “someone to lean on” for the defensive staff.

The lawsuits will be ongoing as the 2023 season unfolds, making for an awkward dance between Braun and his players trying to focus on the team and the media asking about the latest news from the hazing scandal. Heard said the players don’t pay attention to what’s said outside the program.

“Ultimately they are not in this building,” he said. “They don’t know what’s going on. They can have their opinion, but we’ve just focused on ourselves.”

Living on their own planet.